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C of E landholdings ‘create more greenhouse gas emissions than all church buildings combined’

22 September 2022

The Church is one of the largest landowners in the UK

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The report finds that church-owned agricultural land creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all church buildings combined

The report finds that church-owned agricultural land creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all church buildings combined

LAND owned by the Church of England is contributing significantly to the climate and biodiversity crises by emitting climate-heating greenhouse gases and limiting biodiversity, a new report suggests.

In 2020, the General Synod set a 2030 target for net zero carbon emissions (News, 14 February 2020), but this does not include church landholdings. The report, Church Land and the Climate Crisis: A call to action, published on Tuesday by the charity Operation Noah, finds, however, that agricultural land owned by the Church creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all church buildings combined.

There is considerable scope for the Church to reduce its emissions from landholdings if radical action is taken, it says. Recommendations include a programme of tree growing, peat restoration, and providing better support and strategies to people who farm church-owned land to reduce agricultural emissions and store more carbon.

Hannah Malcolm, an ordinand, theologian, and trustee of Operation Noah, said: “In this report, we offer a brief introduction to the scope of the Church of England’s current land holdings and propose some opportunities for action. We want to offer a contribution to ongoing conversations about the gift and role of the Church in England, not only for our worshipping communities, but for all those whom we are called to serve.”

The C of E is one of the largest landowners in the UK. Its landholdings include 98,000 acres of rural and strategic land owned by the Church Commissioners, 70,000 acres owned by the dioceses (known as glebe land), 31,000 acres in the Commissioners’ UK forestry investments, and smaller areas of land owned by individual churches. The Commissioners, part of the National Investment Bodies, have a net-zero target of 2050 (News, 23 April 2021).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that, for the world to limit global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, global greenhouse gas emissions must be nearly halved by 2030. This would involve a rapid reduction in fossil-fuel emissions, the driving cause of global heating, but also increased nature-based solutions to remove carbon already present in the atmosphere.

The Operation Noah report highlights that, if landowners like the Church protect the natural carbon sinks on their land, or extend them, they have the potential to soak up harmful emissions. Woodlands, peatlands, grasslands, and salt marshes all act as carbon “sinks” if protected or restored.

Guy Shrubsole, an environmental campaigner and author of Who Owns England?, said: “The Church, as a major UK landowner, has a great responsibility to steward its landholdings well, and should be leading the way in repairing damaged carbon sinks, expanding habitats, and restoring nature. Yet, at present, it is failing to do so. That’s why it’s so uplifting to see Operation Noah’s new campaign on church land, with its calls on the Church of England to grow more trees, restore peat bogs, and support its tenant farmers to transition to net zero.”

The head of conservation at A Rocha UK, Andy Lester, said: “This report outlines the critical role the Church must play if we are to confront and mitigate the impacts of climate on people and nature. My hope is that this report will go some way to address the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and inspire a new generation of church leaders to take action for people, for climate, and for nature.”

A spokesperson for the Church Commissioners said that they welcomed conversation about how their global land portfolio could help address the climate crisis. “We look forward to sharing more details about our progress and our ongoing approach to sustainability.

“Our land portfolio is entirely let, providing opportunity to collaborate with our tenants to ensure we will meet our target to be net zero by 2050. Over the last few years, we’ve taken a proactive approach to achieve that target include planting ten million trees in the last five years, engaging with local experts within Fenland SOIL to identify opportunities for lowland peat restoration and seeking ways to support sustainable farming businesses in the transition to low carbon farming.”

The full report can be read at the Operation Noah website, brightnow.org.uk.

Joe Ware is Senior Climate Journalist at Christian Aid

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